We owe big parts of ourselves to the places we were in.
That’s mostly why I have tried to keep Sihanoulk Ville out of my thoughts and travel list for the past few years. It’s the place where I was the most innocent, curious and calm. A newly-moved eight-year-old girl who had nothing much to amuse herself but a big yard full of trees and rocks, and a beach ten minutes away from her house.
Most of the fondest memories I have happened with Sihanoulk Ville’s notorious rain as the background sound: peacefully reading on top of a K’Khob tree, pretending I was surveying my kingdom, walking to school and never forgetting to spot any Sompeas plants on the way and collecting bomb fruits to impress my classmates, spending hours honing my Ckers Sat skills against an invisible opponent, and feeling a sense of absolute belonging, among the sunburnt faces of my neighbours and classmates.
In fact, after a few years of moving to Phnom Penh, I made a small, silent promise to myself that I’d move back to the town of magical peace once I graduate university.
And right when I graduated two years ago? The Chinese moved in, big time. Price of land shot up over the roof, casinos sprouted like rashes on an allergic skin and my tiny, silent dream? It got ignored, swept away under the rug, with me pretending it was never a serious dream to begin with anyway.
However, in these last two years, I made sure to never step foot into the town if I could help it. It’s as if the clash with the harsh reality would shatter my precious memories of what it was, and of who I was.
In my times of trouble and identity crisis(es) in Phnom Penh, I always go back to visit the scrawny Sihanoulk Ville kid who would split her allowance with the poor students in class, who would reread the same two books she had with equal enjoyment each time around. It’s funny as I grew up older, I yearned more and more to reach back to that age, to that self, to that stage of life.
But when a friend offered an interpretation opportunity to the ville, I had to jump in. There’s something safe about being the in-between, an interpreter of reality. Like whatever you find shouldn’t really be taken personally. You’re just a mouthpiece after all, a passing tube that should never contain the information for too long.
With that in mind, I embarked on the seven-hour bus ride to the south of the country. Two hours before we even arrived, I was already floored by tears. The random downpours, chilly cold air and mountains as far as you could see, were a signifier of home. I felt an affinity in my heart that I was again right where I belonged, where I could be the best version of myself. Affinity is a strong word, and I’ve only used it twice in my life. If what I felt for the town is not to be called affinity, I honestly don’t know what is.
As we got closer to the town though, changes began to be more visible. Trucks lining up as far as the eyes could see, traffic jams in places usually barren, and of course, Chinese signs and shops erected everywhere.
I went through my old neighborhood, one that I could not recognize from afar any longer. One that used to have 60% barren land and undergrowth, now literally full to the brim with towering buildings and construction sites.
The sidewalks full of bomb fruits I was so fond of, now is filled with rubbish and mud. My primary school, one in which the journey from one end to another used to make me think I was a lone forest ranger, is now covered with nothing but cemented courts and a few extra buildings.
Ironically, the one and only thing that hasn’t changed that much was my Gang Hua Chinese School, as if preserved through time all these fifteen years. I could still see that one broken basketball court where we used to pretend we knew how to play basketball. The well-kept Bodhi tree, rumored to house aloof spirits, but provided excellent hiding spots. The two gardens extended from the entrance to the flag poles, a place where I and my brother used to sit daily for what felt like hours, repeating the school song, picking up small leaves, as we waited for our mother to pick us up.
Even through all these heart-crunching changes, what I realized as I was on my way back to Phnom Penh was that… I was actually not altogether absolutely defeated body and spirit by the visit. Sihanoulk Ville has changed, and so have I.
Is it possible to go back to the perfect past? I doubt it. Even without the Chinese settling in, Kampongsom would have changed. The arrow of time cannot not travel backward, but it also cannot pierce my well-kept memories of what this town used to feel like, and what I used to be like.
Through the interviews, I learned that the Chinese are here because of the future of the town, but its past cannot be erased from the memories of people like me. No matter how much people believe it to be the new Shen Zhen, it’s still going to be old Sihanoulk Ville in my mind.
I take solace in the thought that even if I hadn’t moved, I could not stay that perfectly curious kid forever, and no matter what I and many believe me to be now, and in the future, I still have that sweet eight-year-old salty-skinned kid by my side for the rest of my life.
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